An old story tells of a man who is hiking. As he nears a cliff, he stumbles, falling over the edge. Fortunately, he grabs onto a tree branch, but it leaves him dangling hundreds of feet from the ground.
“Is anyone up there?” he shouts.
At first, he hears nothing. But eventually a voice comes from above. So, he shouts, “Can you help me?”
“Yes,” comes the voice. “This is Jesus. I can help you!”
“Great!” the man replies. “What do you want me to do?”
Jesus answers, “Just let go of the branch, and I’ll catch you.”
There is a pause, and then the man shouts, “Is anyone else up there?”
Sometimes it seems that God is part of the problem, as if we don’t have enough problems already! Just when we hope that God can get us out of some mess we’re in, God either is silent or asks us to do something that seems like it will just make things worse, perhaps fatally worse.
In the Bible we find various accounts of people in trouble. Some get into trouble because they disobey God. In the Psalms we hear people who are suffering despite being innocent calling out to God for help (e.g., Ps. 26). Jesus cites three situations in which bad things happen that apparently have no connection to someone’s actions, right or wrong (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-7). More surprising, perhaps, is how many people get themselves into trouble because they are being faithful to God.
Daniel’s three friends and the furnace
Some of the more interesting stories of the Bible are of this type. The prophet Daniel has three friends: Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Along with Daniel, they are deported to Babylon (modern Iraq) after their nation is destroyed in the early sixth century BCE. In Babylon, they find things to be thankful for but also many challenges.
We easily recognize the context—a powerful, God-rejecting empire asks allegiance, including worship, of its subjects. We know from Daniel 1 that sometimes these young men find acceptable ways to compromise with the king. But in Daniel 3, they directly face Nebuchadnezzar and tell him, “No.”
The king’s fiery furnace now becomes the focus of attention. It is terrible, but it can be made seven times more terrible. With such a threat, Nebuchadnezzar thinks he can motivate universal allegiance to himself and his regime. And the furnace can be so easily avoided! Simply bow to the ground—no one will know what you are really thinking while you do this. Just cooperate and go on with your day. But to comply is to give an earthly monarch too much esteem.
Followers of Jesus say “no”
Christians have a legacy of saying “no” to governing authorities who demand allegiance that involves disobedience to Jesus. Many Christians suffered and died—some by being burned—rather than be unfaithful to the God who loves and calls them.
And yet, our history is also complicated. Just what does it look like to love God above all else while also respecting our neighbors? We find many things to be thankful for in our country. But when it comes to governing authorities, Jesus says that he is Lord. When should we say “yes” and at what points should we say “no” to our own nation?
Is following Jesus consistent with attending patriotic events? Pledging allegiance to the flag of our country? Singing our national anthem? Holding political office? Serving in the armed forces?
For many centuries and into the present day, Christians have come to different conclusions on how to be salt and light for our world, to be peacemakers like Jesus and to love our enemies as he commanded (Matt. 5:9, 13-16, 43-48). Yet we can expect that those with whom we disagree on such matters have something we need to hear.
We should also note the other followers of Abraham’s God in the court of a foreign king: Joseph and Moses in Egypt, Queen Esther and Nehemiah in Persia and Daniel himself in Babylon. Ecclesiastes gives counsel on how to relate to a ruler (Eccl. 8:1-9). Jesus, in the governor’s presence, famously distinguishes his kingdom from that of Pilate (John 18). We learn that followers of Jesus are among the household of Caesar (Phil. 4:22).
Paul speaks before rulers and calls us to submission but not obedience to those in authority (Rom. 13:1-7). Peter insists, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom, with its own culture, values, priorities, loyalty and enemies (Eph. 2:19-22).
These texts and these believers can be models for us of what it means to love God while we respect the country in which we find ourselves. Likewise, Christians in various contexts around the world may have insight about living in this tension.
Allegiance to God
The young men in Daniel 3, when facing the king, state three important things. First, “Our God is able to deliver us from you and from this furnace” (3:17). They know who their God is: Creator of the universe!
Second, “We don’t know if God will deliver us” (3:18). These men believe that you can’t manipulate God or predict what God will do. Notice some examples from the New Testament: Peter is miraculously delivered from prison (Acts 12). But James is brutally killed and likewise Stephen, while forgiving his murderers (Acts 12 and 7). Paul is attacked so harshly that people think he is dead, yet he survives (Acts 14:19). Others are sawed in two (Heb. 11:37). Jesus is crucified and rises from the dead! So, God is able to deliver, but death may come first.
Finally, the friends say, “We are not going to bow down to your big fat statue” (3:18 paraphrased). They would rather die than give their primary allegiance to anything or anyone other than their God. They put their lives into God’s hands and are committed to being part of God’s bigger plans even if these plans aren’t especially clear. Do you and I know God well enough that we are ready to obey when the outcome is not certain?
With us in the darkness
The life of faith in God is a journey. Sometimes we walk in the light, and sometimes we walk at night. During the day, all seems clear, everything makes a lot of sense. We hear God’s call; we choose to obey. But eventually the darkness comes, things are not so clear, things no longer make so much sense.
Jesus models faith for us in a time of despair when he uses the words of Psalm 22:1 on the cross: “My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Such laments are a resource for us in a dark time of suffering before the resurrection of God’s people.
Darkness—before a raging, fiery furnace—comes for Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah in the form of a king who demands what they cannot do: bow down to a pagan image. Yet after casting the three into his furnace, the king notices a fourth person walking around in there. Let us have confidence that God is with us in such seasons!
The furnace for us may involve betrayal, legal troubles, being victims of violence or family tragedies. As with Daniel and his friends, it might also involve the government of the nation in which we live.
Our darkness may be more subtle. It could include the temptation to take shortcuts, to hold onto grudges or to not stand up against wrongs when we see them. It may come in the form of health or financial struggles or an arrogant superior. Sometimes we are tempted to react to our fear and insecurity by striking out against others. We may even consider abandoning God’s call.
We serve a God greater even than those who hold grotesque power in this world. We serve a God who calls us to participate in Jesus’ plans with our gifts and experience, a God who sees clearly during our dark times though we do not. What others mean for ill, God can work for good (Gen. 50:20). God also gives us fellow believers, just as the friends of Daniel had each other. And as with these three, God is with us in the furnace. When the night comes, we can trust, in the darkness, what God has shown us in the light
Douglas B. Miller is professor emeritus of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.